clean and green living · parenthood

The search for a clean(er), green(er) mattress

Photo credits: Christina Castro on Flickr and Cotton Cloud Futon

The time has come for us to purchase a new mattress for our three-year-old. He’s been sleeping on a queen size futon for a couple years now. He never slept well in a crib so we eventually just put the futon mattress we had for guests on the floor and he loved it and has slept beautifully on it. Once he was past the falling-all-the-time stage, we put the mattress back up on the frame, and that has been his bed.

The queen size bed takes up valuable space that could be better used for playing and (eventually) room-sharing with his little brother. Thinking I would just purchase a mattress and bed set from Ikea, I took to the internet to research good options for a growing pre-schooler.

And that is when I unintentionally jumped head first down the rabbit hole of the chemical-free, organic, natural mattress dog and pony show.


Photo credit TheGiantVermin on Flickr

Conventional mattress concerns
There are plenty of other resources online that go into the potential health consequences of sleeping on a conventional mattress, so I will just summarize my findings as briefly as possible. What I learned is that certain well-intentioned (but likely shortsighted) laws require mattress manufacturers to pass flammability tests with their products. At first blush, that seems like a good thing. No one wants a potential pile of kindling lurking in their bedroom.

The problem is that conventional mattresses are made of petroleum products, usually polyurethane foam, that is highly flammable and ensures you are sleeping on a slab of solid fuel. To combat this risk, manufacturers treat conventional mattresses with flame retardant chemicals or barriers, some worse than others, to pass flammability tests. A quick bit of research on these flame retardants reveals a myriad list of risks. The worst offenders have largely been outlawed, however newer chemicals are also raising serious red flags. Basically, yuck.

Products for children and babies have to meet stricter requirements and therefore often contain more flame retardants than products manufactured for adults. My vague understanding is that an additional California law went into effect in January to combat some of this, but manufacturers can and do still add flame retardants to their products.

In addition to the flame retardant concerns, there is the problem of “off-gassing.” You know… that “new” smell that lots of things seem to have. Apparently that smell is from toxins coming off of your household items, new car, etc. Add to that the use of conventionally farmed cotton and now you can also obsess over the pesticide exposure you and your little ones are enjoying every time you snuggle in for a peaceful slumber.

The more I thought about the amount of time our kids will spend in their beds between now and when they leave the nest, the sadder I became thinking about my boys sleeping on potential vats of mystery chemicals and petroleum foam.

Photo credits: Martin LaBar and Kate Hiscok on Flickr.

Natural materials and organic options
There are green and organic options to choose from. These products utilize materials such as organic cotton, wool, and all-natural latex. Wool is a natural fire retardant. Mattresses with an adequate amount of wool do not require further chemicals to pass flammability tests. Some people are allergic to wool and latex, however, so these are not perfect materials either.

For nationally available and known brands, these options start at around $700 and go up quickly from there.

There’s no way of escaping it: these are really expensive solutions that are out of reach for many people. My husband and I needed to talk seriously about how much money we were willing to spend to avoid these chemicals and conventional products.

What is a concerned parent to do?
After a great deal of thought and research, we came up with a solution that I’m feeling really happy about. After reading all the scary stories online I needed to talk myself down and remember what my initial goal was: to avoid flame retardants.

We decided to order a futon-style (no springs) mattress from a local manufacturer. This super comfy eight-inch mattress is primarily made from cotton and wool. It does include some foam, however, the foam is CentiPUR certified, which guarantees at least a certain degree of protection from VOCs, phthalates and chemicals. The foam is wrapped in cotton and wool. We plan to top the mattress with an organic cotton waterproof mattress pad.

Because the mattress contains wool, which is a natural fire retardant, we were able to request no additional fire retardant be used in the making of the mattress. Even though the staff explained they only use boron (which appears to be among the most natural and least offensive fire retardants available) we still preferred to avoid it if possible. Gratefully, this seemed to be a common request because the staff were quite adept at addressing the issue and explaining how they cleaned the machines and made all the flame-retardant-free orders together.

Side note: If you need a wool and flame-retardant-free mattress many small manufacturers can produce one for you with a note from a doctor. This would be an option for people who are allergic to wool.

So, that is how we solved this dilemma for now. It’s not a completely perfect mattress because it includes some non-organic cotton and poly foam, however it avoids the main thing I wanted to omit: fire retardant. It is also more affordable than the bigger name organic options and leaves us some room in the budget to put some new paint on the walls and an eco-friendly rug on the floor for the boys to play on. As our son gets older, we can switch from a waterproof pad to a plain cotton mattress protector and buy a plush pillow-top wool or latex topper for a more luxurious sleep surface.

Because we special ordered the mattress, it will take at least two weeks to arrive. I will post an update and pictures when we have the new bed set up. In the meantime, here are some resources on the concerns about conventional mattresses for you to obsess over:

  • The Environmental Working Group summarizes the risks of fire retardants here.
  • Here is an overview of the risks of flame retardants for babies and children.
  • This post details another mom’s search for the right mattress for her family.

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